Gogol’s “Dead Souls” and Russia’s Myth of One Million Men Under Arms

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 12

Nikolai Gogol’s Myortvyye Dushi (Dead Souls), published in 1842, drew inspiration from nineteenth century Imperial Russian landowners maintaining dead serfs on the official count in property registers. Today, the Russian defense ministry likewise engages in creative methods of counting the number of servicemen in the armed forces. Although precise numbers are classified as secret, the Security Council set the target of a “reduction” to “one million.” On December 17, 2010, Defense Minister, Anatoliy Serdyukov declared on Zvezda TV that the “one million” goal had been achieved (Zvezda TV, December 17, 2010).

Nevertheless, it is clear that Russia has been unable to sustain one million for some time now, resulting from demographic factors and reducing the term of conscript service to twelve months. In Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, Vladimir Mukhin noted that Serdyukov admitted during a closed session of the Duma in December 2010 that the requirements of the draft were “not being fully met.” Mukhin stated: “According to official data, less than 500,000 drafted soldiers and sergeants are now serving in the armed forces. About 120,000 contract soldiers and 181,000 officers are serving in the armed forces.” Signs emerged in December that the authorities were struggling to fulfil the fall draft with reported raids on student dormitories, including a number of flutists and violinists drafted from the Moscow conservatory of music (The Moscow Times, December 21, 2010). However, the General Staff is now calculating by exactly how much the fall draft failed to meet expectations, with Mukhin suggesting this might be as much as 20 percent (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, January 12).

Under manning in the armed forces was confirmed by Major-General Evgenny Burdinskiy, the Deputy Chief of Staff in the Mobilization Directorate in West Military District (MD)/Joint-Strategic Command. General Burdinskiy stated the 2010 fall draft was “fulfilled” by 83 percent or a shortfall of 55,250 (http://nsr-lvo.clan.su/gazeta_pdf/30-12/pdf/02.pdf, December 30, 2010). Additionally, Mukhin’s figure of 181,000 officers, in the context of the ongoing officer downsizing, was corroborated by defense ministry data, though he made no reference to more than 70,000 officers placed at the disposition of their commanders, or outside the table of organization and equipment (allowing the state to avoid providing apartments). Contract personnel levels may be as much as 120,000; however, the defense ministry has also indicated that these numbers are in decline (Krasnaya Zvezda, December 29, 2010).

Following Serdyukov’s reform announcement in October 2008, based on an analysis of foreign militaries the target for officer downsizing was “fixed” at 15 percent of the overall manpower strength, or 150,000. This allows the defense ministry to claim it is close to completing the officer cuts since they now have 31,000 to “remove” from service. This is where the figures fall victim to secrecy and contradiction. Since it is clear that the figure of one million is inaccurate (it may inflate the actual figure by between 100,000 to 200,000) if the officer downsizing stops once 150,000 is reached, the structure will remain top heavy. Equally, if the defense ministry publicly “adjusts” the target for the size of the officer corps, it may inadvertently reveal the actual overall manpower strength; which the authorities want to avoid. Colonel-General Aleksandr Postnikov, the commander-in-chief (CINC) of the Ground Forces, has suggested the officer corps percentage is in fact nine percent, though he may be referring to the number of officers serving in the Ground Forces rather than offering a standard figure throughout the armed forces (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, February 26, 2010).

While these manpower issues have serious implications for the level of combat readiness, specifically Mukhin raised the question of declining numbers of contract personnel. Major-General (retired) Yuriy Sosedov, the Chairman of the Council of Veterans of the 76th Air Assault Division in Pskov, alleged that during 2010 the proportion of contract soldiers in the airborne forces (Vozdushno Desantnye Voiska –VDV) fell from 20 percent to 12 percent. This hemorrhaging of kontraktniki from the VDV is based on poor pay and conditions. Sosedov accused the leadership of the defense ministry of cutting budget expenditures by reducing the number of contract personnel in the armed forces. Moreover, Sosedov recounted one instance involving the commander of a Special Forces brigade in Pskov, ordered not to extend contracts to existing personnel but to replace these with drafted soldiers and sergeants after they complete three-month accelerated courses in training sub-units: “It is not necessary to speak about the tasks of the special force brigade. As before, they do not fulfill training tasks. They fulfill combat tasks in the hot spots of the North Caucasus. A good special forces soldier cannot be trained even in one year and certainly not within three months” (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, January 12).

Other Russian commentators see less reason to be concerned. Igor Korotchenko, a member of the defense ministry’s public council, said there is not enough money available to pay even the low salaries to existing kontraktniki, but added: “Consequently, the defense ministry made the decision only to man certain posts, for which there is a severe shortage of personnel, with contract soldiers, posts that are necessary for the operation of complex equipment and which determine the combat capability of the military units” (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, January 12).

These factors reveal much about the ongoing reform and raises questions about many of its official goals and the competence of the defense ministry’s leadership. Faced with under manning, the “permanent readiness brigades” formed in 2009 cannot currently be fully manned. Officer downsizing targets are equally opaque, while reduced numbers of contract personnel particularly in key formations such as the VDV can only further limit combat readiness levels. With lower numbers of kontraktniki, according to the top brass often these are indistinguishable in terms of quality from conscripts, can the Russian armed forces cope in the longer-term with the insurgency in the North Caucasus?

The defense ministry data exposes the myth of “one million” men under arms in Russia as an absurdity, while a Gogol’s dead souls approach may be linked to maximizing the cash flow into the armed forces. Still more intriguing is why the defense ministry has chosen to reveal this chaotic glimpse into the manpower structure.